Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Downtown Deserves Better Design

Downtown Indianapolis has a housing problem. I am not referring to the abandoned and foreclosed homes that blight many of our neighborhoods. This is a problem of new, prominent construction projects that are a visual blight in our built environment. I work as an architectural historian and am keenly aware that buildings have a huge and lasting impact on a city. I am also an aficionado of good modern design who thinks that new buildings should be stylish and well-designed avatars of the 21st Century.

Unfortunately, two of downtown’s recent, large-scale residential projects, the Villagio and 3 Mass condos, will represent our times to future historians as unattractive architectural mistakes completely out of context, scale and proportion with their neighborhoods. Massive buildings don’t dissipate like a bad smell over time. They can stink up a city for centuries, and these two are real stinkers.

If you haven’t seen the enormous nine-story box called the Villagio, you should. Drive south on Virginia Avenue as you pass it so that you get the full effect of the off-kilter concrete parking garage at the rear, as well. And if you think the front of the building is unattractive, take a gander at the rear. The developers snubbed their noses at three historic neighborhoods: Fletcher Place, Holy Rosary and Fountain Square with this manila-colored blank wall blocking the view of downtown.

A building that looks like a timeshare on the beach of Panama City, Florida, is inappropriate at this prominent gateway to the beautiful residential architecture of Fletcher Place and the Bohemian-tinged Fountain Square. This is not just an unattractive building, it is a monstrous clunky cube plunked awkwardly on a triangular tract of land. The square footprint defies the logic of the flatiron shape that our clever ancestors fit so perfectly onto city lots such as this one. Worst of all, the Villagio’s massiveness ensures that it’s here to stay. And the city is worse off for it.

Another residential project still under construction is also shaping up as a sad architectural blunder. The 3 Mass condos in the 300 block of Massachusetts Avenue are a good idea gone badly wrong. While the concept of filling a surface parking lot with a mixed-use condo/commercial unit is commendable, the actual building isn’t. From the corner of New York and Delaware, the disturbing juxtaposition of its hulking hugeness pushed up against the beautiful flatiron building in front of it conjures up the image of a whale about to swallow a tuna.

On Massachusetts Avenue, the heavy brick fa├žade overwhelms the comparatively small-scaled and elegant historic buildings that are its neighbors. 3 Mass is out of context in this charming historic district. An attractive modern design of appropriate scale and proportion could have worked well at this spot, but this isn’t attractive and it doesn’t work.

Thankfully there is reason to be hopeful that there won’t be other Villagios or 3 Masses in our future. The latter rushed into construction before Massachusetts Avenue was designated part of a local historic district, which would now require design review by the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission. And in 2008, after Villagio and 3 Mass had been approved, the city instituted new Urban Design Guidelines. These new guidelines are intended to “set standards that will produce a more thoughtful design response to Regional Center development projects.” That thoughtful design response was sorely needed in these two projects.

Buildings are important in how we view ourselves as a people and a city. If Indianapolis is to become the “world class” city that we hear so much about we can only hope that these new guidelines will prevent such monumental mistakes in the future.

Note: a slightly softened version of this piece appeared in the September 5, 2009 IBJ as an Op-Ed.


  1. Are they nuts? This is great! I'm sick of this "blend in" attitude people fall for. 3 Mass is creative and not afraid to show where. People thought the Murat Temple was ugly when it went up because it was different. I'll admit that the flat white walls in the top section need breaking up (do solar panels come in red?), but the shape is a good frame to the older buildings below. As for the Villagio, Big mistake. It's a coastal, CAR-centric, hotel structure plunked selfishly into the view of the neighborhood it corners. The decks are fine, but they missed a side. Some of us find sky and land a good view. And lastly the brickwork just stops short for no reason. Makes it look like Vanilla on a waffle cone.

  2. riftalope, I do appreciate that you took the time to comment. I've already said what I think about 3Mass so won't bother to repeat, but I think there's nothing creative about this. The top section was, from what I've been told, an add-on to the original design when the developers decided they needed more condos to make the numbers work. Ugh.